On August 19, just shy of two and a half weeks ago, I had the pleasure to sit down with two men who, like me, had attended every padded camp practice. Dan Turner, our British compatriot who spent the summer writing for The Mothership and I gathered in our friend Knowledgeable Cowboys Fan's kitchen, ate chicken and engaged in an annual exercise: modeling a cut-down to 53 players.
The post detailing our process offered this chart as a depiction of our late-August 53. I'll share it here as a starting point for the points I wish to make about the 2015 Cowboys. Note that it was organized into various "cut levels":
|Pos.||Roster Locks||Valuable Pieces||End-Roster|
Note that every player in the "Roster Locks" and "Valuable Pieces" categories ended up making the final 53, with the exception of Orlando Scandrick, who certainly would have had he not been injured. For me, the takeaway from this exercise (and from the 1-90 roster ranking I did with my podcast partner, Landon McCool the previous weekend) was that it was considerably easier to determine the Cowboys roster this summer than it had been in previous years.
A quick glance at the above chart shows that only three players who were on our roster on August 19 (and may well not have been on the Cowboys' roster at the same time) - Dustin Vaughan, Laurence Gibson, and Scandrick - ended up not being on the 53. They were replaced by Ken Bishop, Keith Smith and Christine Michael. What that means is that, a couple of days before the second preseason game, a group of observant, informed Cowboys fans already had an accurate top 50 (which would have been 51 had Scandrick not been hurt).
Not only was it easy to determine the top 50, but all of the players who were in our final conversation - Davon Coleman, Bishop, Lavar Edwards, Vaughan, Jameil Showers - appear to have been the very players the club was discussing as they determined their 53. The one open question in this regard is Laurence Gibson, who, at the time of our exercise, had been coming on and had recently performed well in several practices, making us think a light had gone on that, in fact, never seems to have had a bulb. In the last two and a half weeks, he and Vaughan seem to have played themselves off the team and Keith Smith played his way on. Things do change.
But not much. And that fact invites me to return to a narrative I voiced frequently during the first week or so in Oxnard: this was not the most riveting training camp I have attended (and, by extension, one of the less thrilling preseasons I have witnessed). Crucially, that's not for lack of starpower; quite the contrary, this Cowboys team is loaded with Pro Bowl caliber players at a number of positions and, in a scary development for Dallas' division rivals, the younger ones in the bunch all seem to have improved. Tyron Smith was playing better; Dez Bryant was playing better; Cole Beasley and DeMarcus Lawrence were playing much better—and the list goes on. The fields at Oxnard were littered with deluxe athletes doing incredible things - so that's not why camp wasn't as interesting.
No, Oxnard 2015 - and the subsequent two weeks in Dallas - have been comparatively ho-hum largely because there have been so few roster puzzles to solve here in 2015. Think back to the litany of burning, unanswered questions we were mulling over a mere thirteen months ago: what was the state of Romo's back? Who would emerge as the third receiver? Could the Cowboys establish an NFL-caliber running game? Who would replace the departed DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher? The injured Sean Lee? How would the defense be anything other than "historically bad"? And, given all of these, how could Jason Garrett avoid getting his walking papers?
For coaches, assembling an NFL roster is a complex puzzle with many interlocking variables. For smart, obsessed fans like those at Blogging the Boys who are trying to do the same via reading of tea leaves, its an even more difficult and unpredictable process. Yet we love this process, because it provides fascinating storylines and heated roster debates. Frankly, such back-and-forth is what sustains us over the course of a preseason that is otherwise marred by some really bad - I mean, really bad - games.
The fact that there were so few burning roster questions was why Oxnard 2015 was less than scintillating. Consider: with multiple personnel groupings, most NFL teams have a "starting 26." For the Cowboys, how many of those 26 will be made up of players that didn't start last year? Two, maybe three? How many starting spots will be taken by players not on the roster in 2014? One? How many of the Cowboys three "first round" rookies - Byron Jones, Randy Gregory, and La'el Collins - are slated to start? That's right, none—and not because they have performed poorly. Quite the contrary: its because there is an established set of very good to All-Pro caliber veterans in front of them.
What this imprecise exercise suggests is that this is a team far less in flux than the one we watching being put through its paces a year ago. Since before camp opened, we have known with a good deal of confidence who the starting offensive and defensive lines will be, as well as the top four wide receivers, three tight ends, five corners (moment of silence for Number 32), and three safeties to top the depth chart. We also have a quite clear sense of who the non-starting rotational defensive linemen will be. And heck, we have a very clear sense of who they want two of their starting three linebackers to be. That's a lot of puzzle pieces already in place; the lone remaining questions are at running back and strongside linebacker.
In recent years, this is the weekend where the Cowboys churned the bottom of the 53, picking up reinforcements at positions where they team didn't believe they had a full rostrum of NFL-quality players. This year, as Brandon George observed, they made exactly zero claims on other players (and had none of their own releases claimed)
The Dallas Cowboys didn't claim any players on waivers. And none of the Cowboys' 20 players waived Saturday were claimed by other teams.— Brandon George (@DMN_George) September 6, 2015
To my mind, this lack of activity reflects the simple fact that the Cowboys have a deeper, more talented, more stable roster than at any time in recent memory. So, instead of churning the bottom of the 53, they are more likely to churn the practice squad. While nothing surprising happened as they shaped the 53, there have been some very real surprises when it comes to the practice squad: Ben Gardner and Dustin Vaughan weren't extended offers, and Kellen Moore was.
On good rosters, the churning point drops. For your 2015 Cowboys, it has dropped to player 50 and below. That's very good news indeed.